Organicism, Authoritarianism, Clericalism,
and Black Politics
(from The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon)

by Adolph L. Reed, Jr.

[Jesse] Jackson, like [George] Wallace and the others, presented himself as an embodiment of collectively held values rather than as the representative of an instrumental issue agenda; his claim to authenticity derived from his assertion of a direct relation to a mass constituency—a relation that was presumed to exist outside of and prior to formal political linkages. His campaign to that extent sought to use electoral mechanisms, which are essentially formal and procedural, to validate a leadership relation that is essentially antiformal and antiprocedural.

An irony of this political style, and the leadership model in which it is embedded, is that—while ostensibly popular and immediately representative—it is fundamentally antidemocratic. Antiformalism leaves acclamation as the sole principle of popular validation. However, only at rare moments of widespread popular mobilization, during active, self-regenerative social movements, is this acclamation accessible to public verification. Only in such instances does the mass constituency constitute a discursive community that can steer and discipline leadership. Otherwise, without palpable mechanisms of ratification, no evidentiary base exists from which to determine veracity of leadership claims; nor is there any way for an amorphous, posited constituency to affirm or reject claimants’ actions.

In the Afro-American context the antidemocratic character of the organic leadership style has been obscured by the primacy of external linkages to white elites. Protest leadership is beset by the contradiction that certification of its authenticity normally is attained outside the black community. Nevertheless, that leadership status rests on a premise of unmediated representation of a uniform racial totality, and this premise has fostered a model of political authority that is antidiscursive and deemphasizes popular accountability. As this model descends from the realm of interelite negotiation to popular politics, it discloses a hortatory and charismatic aspect which—in the absence of restraints imposed by electoral formalism or a self-propelling, goal-oriented political movement—tends naturally toward authoritarianism.

The organic relation, in the course of eliminating instrumental distinctions between leadership and constituents, also eliminates accountability and—by extension—the principle of representation. Commitment to this organic view, by assuming complete identity of racial interests, inhibits the constituency from participating in the rational articulation of political goals. Thus, the fortunes and preferences of constituents simply are collapsed into those of leadership. No arena exists for debate of the subjectively defined objectives of leadership. Loyalty, then, becomes less a function of adherence to a popular issue agenda than an expression of obedience to leadership’s arbitrary definitions of the requirements of the posited racial totality. Because the objectives of leadership and the interests of the constituents are presumed identical, dissent is tantamount to treason. [pp. 34-35]

Assertions that organic, clerical legitimations preempt those [secular] procedures, on the contrary, remove churchly agendas from the arena of orderly public scrutiny and debate. The principle of religious superordination might adequately reflect the preferences of those who identify with the church, but it potentially sabotages democratic organization of the contemporary black polity. This is hardly to deny the possible limitations of electoral proceduralism; however, if commitment to the value of democracy is to be maintained, challenges to the adequacy of proceduralism must emanate from a more open and more extensively participatory standard of representation. Appeal to such a standard is conspicuously absent from notions alleging representative priority of church-based legitimations among Afro-Americans.

The rhetoric of organic or primalistic authenticity surrounding assertions of the church’s special political status covers a model of authority that is antithetical to participatory representation. As Frazier indicated, "the pattern of control and organization of the Negro church has been authoritarian, with a strong man in a dominant position." The basis of clerical authority lies outside the temporal world and is not susceptible to secular dispute. The community constituted in the church is not reproduced through open discourse but is bound by consensual acceptance of a relation that vests collective judgment in the charismatic authority of the minister. The status of superordinate ministerial authority can be acquired through vocation or being "called." However, once attained, that status uncouples the minister from the body of the faithful and—because of the assumption of privileged clerical access to divine purposes mysterious to others—exonerates clerical leadership from susceptibility to secular criticism.

This model of authority is fundamentally antiparticipatory and antidemocratic; in fact, it is grounded on a denial of the rationality that democratic participation requires. Diane Johnson, in an essay that includes the distinctive style of black charismatic religion among several factors that led to the massacre at Jonestown, observes that this black religious style devalues "the powers of analysis and penetration that education supposedly confers." Black ministers, she notes, "in particular sustain a traditional style of histrionic worship in which real and false prophets are . . . easily confused." Frazier argues, moreover, that because of its important role in the social organization of the black community, the church’s distinctive patterns of authority have exerted a powerful authoritarian force in the elaboration of Afro-American institutions in general, a consequence of which has been a chronic and extensive undervaluation of democratic processes in the black community. The church and religion, Frazier concludes, "have cast a shadow over the entire intellectual life of Negroes." This antiparticipatory and antiintellectual impetus deauthorizes the principle of individual autonomy, which is the basis of citizenship, and—when combined with the church’s intrinsically antitemporal eschatological orientation—mandates quietism, political and otherwise. [pp. 56-57]

Lacking any other basis, black elites have responded to current debates in a unidimensional language of racial entitlement. In so doing they inadvertently reinforce the rightist view that black concerns are peripheral, if not contrary, to the project of reconstructing a growth consensus. This language, which advances a notion of social obligation that is seemingly disconnected from a context of mutual civic responsibility, posits an incommensurate relation between blacks and the [Democratic] party’s other interest configurations; when combined with the present cultural mood and traditional resistance to black-identified agendas, it is easily construed as antagonistic and weakens coalitional possibilities. This reductionist language of racial entitlement informed the Jackson phenomenon as well and helped to prevent integration of its claims regarding collective black self-fulfillment and its "Rainbow" pretensions. [pp. 84-85]

Yet the tendency toward exceptionalism has exerted a continuing influence on the Left’s approach to the black population. Exaltation of an idealized view of black folk life and its alleged organicism— most distinctive prior to the "revolutionary" turn during the civil rights era—connects with New Left counterculturists’ imagery of blacks as the embodiment of a more visceral and authentic humanity, with the Students for a Democratic Society’s facile identification with the Black Panther Party and the "Third Worldist" mythology of the black-revolutionary-as-urban-guerrilla, and with more recent ingenuousness concerning the rise of black officialdom....

The tracings of exceptionalism are visible in other contexts as well. Respectable leftist journals habitually bracket their intellectual integrity when considering contributions pertaining to Afro-Americans. An editor of a journal that had published one such piece acknowledged, when confronted, that the article was at best second-rate. His defense was that the journal needed to publish something on blacks ... [p. 119]

A first step must be to cultivate a spirit of civic liberalism in Afro-American politics. Dissent must be dissociated from the stigma of race treason, and principles of rational political argument and open participation must be brought to bear on the relation between representatives and those represented. The cause of civic liberalism can be advanced only by practicing it. This entails an obligation for all citizens, especially intellectuals (who after all supposedly engage in such behavior for their living), to maintain close, public, critical scrutiny of claims made by political elites and to demand public accounting for and judgment of their actions. A systematic attack must be launched on the prevailing pattern in which justification of elite behavior occurs autocratically, by reference to status and authority of person; insistence on public justification by means of rational-discursive principles is a sine qua non of democratic community. [pp. 134-5]

SOURCE: Reed, Adolph L., Jr. The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe—Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide

Black Particularity Reconsidered by Adolph L. Reed Jr. (offsite)

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

Uploaded 26 April 2002
Link added 27 June 2008

Site ©1999-2008 Ralph Dumain